Box Office Box Office Top 10

Box Office: Detroit and Atomic Blonde Illustrate the Limits of Treating Ticket-Buying Decisions as Social Activism

Failure, not success, will be the true arbiter of the future of Hollywood’s diversity initiative. Hit movies happen all the time for a variety of reasons, usually coming down to some hard-to-replicate combination of being the right movie at the right time for the right audience. That’s Wonder Woman and Girls Trip this year, Straight Outta Compton two years ago. Such success stories are often spun as being due to finally serving a ridiculously underserved audience, and there’s a lot of truth to that. But what happens when movies of a comparable if somewhat lesser quality come along to serve that same audience only to be given the cold shoulder? Historically, that’s the moment when the film industry regards the hit as a fluke, the failure as the norm and we end up right back at square one.

That, well, that can’t happen again, and it probably won’t, not with the way things have been trending. However, here we are looking up at Wonder Woman officially crossing $400 million domestic and looking down at Charlize Theron’s would-be franchise starter Atomic Blonde failing to really light the world on fire with a modest 10-day total of $34m, a slightly better pace than the first John Wick but not the resounding hit many were expecting. Similarly, Girls Trip is marching toward $100m while black-led films like The Dark Tower (starring Idris Elba) and Detroit (starring John Boyega and so many others) wither on the vine, the former opening ($19m) below already-low expectations and the latter expanding wide and finding few takers ($7m) for a well-reviewed historical drama about police brutality that plays more like a grindhouse horror movie.

It is too early to really declare any of these films failures. The studios didn’t break the bank making them ($60m budget for Dark Tower, $32m for Detroit, $30m for Atomic Blonde). They all have international runs ahead of them, and Detroit has long since been planned to be the type of movie that takes time to catch on and possibly earns a re-release once the inevitable awards nominations come rolling in.

Detroit Movie.jpg

However, their current struggles don’t quite fit the narrative that if you make movies for women or movies for people of color they’ll automatically become hits because those audiences are just so starved for content. No, they’re starved for good content, just like everyone else. Since Netflix doesn’t release viewing figures it’s hard to say for this sure, but I’d guess more women chose to stay home and binge GLOW this summer than go out and watch another Bridesmaids retread like Rough Night (a movie I personally liked, but I’m in the minority there). Why? Because GLOW had positive word of mouth and Rough Night didn’t.

Similarly, the word of mouth on The Dark Tower and Atomic Blonde screams “wait to rent” as both films are flawed and don’t meet the “Is it a cultural event?” criteria so many now use to decide which movies to see in theaters. The fact that each film ticks off nice little diversity boxes which should theoretically please the social justice warriors is secondary to whether or not the films are any good.


That has been the ongoing story of the summer. With few exceptions (sorry, War for the Planet of the Apes), the better-reviewed movies have made all the money, as audiences have switched from “we want more female- and black-led movies, and movies directed by women and people of color!!” to “we want good movies, period.” Get Out? Great movie. The Dark Tower? Meh.


But what about Detroit? Female director (Kathryn Bigelow) and producer (Megan Ellison). Rave reviews (86% RT rating). A genuinely powerful cinematic experience, one that will stick with you long after you leave the theater. Where’s the audience?

Opting for escapism somewhere else. As Forbes pointed out, “It shouldn’t be a shock that audiences of all stripes opted for the more escapist options as opposed to the horrific true-life drama that offers nothing in the way of hope or salvation. Even in the late 1990’s, audiences preferred Booty Call to Rosewood. And last year they picked The Magnificent Seven over Birth of a Nation.”

The temptation is to call out all those who claim to want diversity but fail to turn out and support movies like Atomic Blonde, The Dark Tower and Detroit. However, this illustrates the limits of treating ticket-buying decisions as a form of social activism. In extreme circumstances, such as the international incident surrounding The Interview where North Korea threatened us and a handful of defiant theaters went ahead with sold-out screenings of the film anyway, people will happily fork over their money to make a statement, even if it means supporting a movie they may not like. But for the most part people just want to be entertained. Atomic Blonde and The Dark Tower are both entertaining, but not as much as they should be. Detroit is powerful, but perhaps too raw and distressingly familiar in our current age of nonstop high profile police brutality incidents.

Of course, in time Detroit might defy the odds and find its audience, but it’s not off to a great start. Atomic Blonde could still get a sequel if it at least matches its domestic numbers in international gross. The Dark Tower…well, it’s looking a little screwed, but that prequel TV series might still happen. However, the success or failure will be based on merit and word-of-mouth, not ultimatums. Go see Detroit, not because you feel you have to see it to support some cause. See it because it is an amazing movie. Supporting everything the film represents will simply be a secondary benefit.

The optimistic angle is to celebrate that we get to even have this conversation this year because in year’s past that one big female-led summer movie would be all we’d get. The pessimistic take is that if we don’t support these movies it’s another bullet for Hollywood to put into the head of its tentative push toward diversity. But I like to believe we have finally reached a point where the struggles of movies like Atomic Blonde and The Dark Tower are just as normal as the success stories of Wonder Woman and Girls Trip.

Not every film has to carry the entire weight of a race or gender on its back, right? Because, if so, movies aimed at white dude teenagers would have stopped being made years ago considering how many failures there have been. The same needs to be true for female and minority-targeted movies. They need to be allowed to fail sometimes, just like any other movie. If Hollywood overreacts to any such failure it’ll mean we’ve truly made no real long-lasting progress here, but I don’t think that will happen, not with the dollar signs in everyone’s eyes due to Wonder Woman‘s box office dominance this summer.

Or do you totally disagree with my conclusion (or anything else I said)? Let me know in the comments.


  1. That is a well-reasoned article. Thank you for that.

    I feel we should be long past the need to artificially force diversity into ANYTHING. College entrance requirements, job applications, and now movies and TV shows.

    Let the market forces decide.

    Is there still inequality? Yes, but has it been proven to be exclusively between male and female? Black or white? I’m not convinced.

    Take the recent noise about male actors being paid more than female actors. Aren’t there plenty of male actors who get paid way more than other MALE actors? Should there be an outcry about that? I’ll bet Jennifer Lawrence gets paid more than some of her male co-stars. Am I wrong? Is that an injustice?

    If a female actor feels her salary offer is too low, she should either negotiate a higher salary or pass on the deal. If she’s as valuable to the film as she thinks she is, the studio will pay her what she asks. Otherwise they’ll look for another female actor who’s willing to accept the pay. But the same is true for any male actor.

    You may feel I go too far on that, but at the core you and I are in agreement: It should always be more about quality than what race or gender stars.

    1. “I’ll bet Jennifer Lawrence gets paid more than some of her male co-stars. Am I wrong? Is that an injustice?”

      We actually know for a fact that she got paid more than Chris Pratt for Passengers, but that’s only because the Sony leak revealed she was paid significantly less than all of the guys in American Hustle, even Jeremy Renner, who has a much smaller part and is not a box office draw whatsoever. After that, Lawrence took a harder line on negotiating and wasn’t going to let that shit happen again. The industry argument on Sony’s side was that actresses are not necessarily paid what they’re worth, but what they ask for. It doesn’t make fiscal sense to pay above an actor’s requested salary, or so the money people said. What happened, though, is a lot of actresses didn’t actually realize they were being paid less. Some did. But JLaw and Amy Adams apparently had no idea on American Hustle. So, the talk about equal pay here is largely about raising awareness and encouraging actresses to negotiate more aggressively, as JLaw did on Passengers where she demanded and received a $20m payday.

      But she can do that because she’s earned it. It’s the below the line names who are really hurt by the gender gap because they have no real negotiating leverage, not when big name actresses are still sometimes paid less than men for no discernible reason beyond gender. That’s when things like producers making a conscious effort to offer equal pay or male co-stars taking pay cuts out of solidarity makes all the difference in the world.

      1. I’ve mixed feelings about salaries being leaked. In normal businesses, there’s a reason salaries are generally not disclosed. Everyone gets upset (male or female) because they think they should be paid as much (or more than so and so).

        But, I like what you described with Jennifer Lawrence. The discrepancy came out and she demanded more. The studio had to decide if she was worth it.

        What I don’t like is outside, artificial sources dictating that group Y must be paid the same as group Y.

        At the lower tiers, you’re saying male actors tend to get paid more than female actors of the same caliber for similar roles. I would think direct comparisons would be difficult, but if it’s true, then I think the smart move by the studios is to start paying the male actors less. I would think it’s rare — esp at the lower tiers that there aren’t dozens of male actors who’d be thrilled to be cast even at the lower pay and would do just as well for the movie.

        I believe you’ve previously pointed out that even big name stars are no longer an assurance of a big draw. I’d like to see more and more quality movies being made with leads that are not on the A list. More movies become profitable and A listers might stop thinking they’re God’s gift to mankind.

  2. Idk! I disagree. I don’t think we’ve reached the point where we can have mediocre movies with diverse casts. Hollywood is always willing to revert to the status quo, becasuse just hiring the same 25 straight,White able bodied, actors, without thinking about it, is the easiest and laziest thing to do.

    The filmmakers themselves work pretty hard, but the money men who prop them up just want an easy win. They’re always going to lobby to do the same old thing because they figure the same old thing works, which is how we end up with Scarlett Johansson in everything.

    When movies like The Dark Tower, and Ghostbusters fail at the box office, they use that as an excuse never to do it again. I have no faith that the mindset of Hollywood has changed.

    I went to see The Dark Tower and while its not a cultural event the way Black Panther seems to be, its not half as awful as the reviewers are making it out to be, but then I’m always that one person, so take that as you will. I enjoyed it., and I’m a huge fan of Stephen King, having read almost all his books, including The Dark Tower series.
    My mom has never read any of the Dark Tower books, and knows nothing at all about any of it. She’s just a fan of Idris Elba, and that’s what I used to talk her into seeing it with me. She thoroughly enjoyed it (while eating too much popcorn.) We both got a real thrill from watching Elba, as essentially, a cowboy, in what for her was simply a very dark Western.

    1. –> “When movies like The Dark Tower, and Ghostbusters fail at the box office, they use that as an excuse never to do it again. I have no faith that the mindset of Hollywood has changed.”

      I don’t understand your reasoning. You’re Hollywood should keep producing movies that fail?

      Movie decisions are rightly made based on the best chance of financial success. When a movie fails, the money people look for the cause of the failure. And an objective look at the past decade or so will show that ALL KINDS of movies fail and Hollywood stops making those. There are plenty of white male leading men who stopped getting parts because their movies stopped doing well. It’s not just diversity. It’s everything.

      It would make no sense to run a business in any other way.

      1. Actually, that’s not what I said, but okay. What I mean is that Hollywood very easily forgets when movies with marginalized casts have been successful, in favor of believing that ALL such movies are failures, when one of them fails.

        And you’re wrong about the white men who make bad movies and still have careers. They may not have careers right now, but they are at least allowed to make more than one box office flop before having their careers ended. They’re allowed to keep going, making one bad film after another, until they get a hit.

      2. –> ” but they are at least allowed to make more than one box office flop before having their careers ended. ”

        Yes, because they have a track record of success and so the studio hopes their last flop was an anomaly. They’re not spending MILLIONS on the actor because he’s a WHITE MALE. They’re spending because they still think he can make them money.,

      3. Got any evidence to back that up?

        Can you show me a case where a black actor had a stellar career and then had one flop and then couldn’t get cast anymore?

      4. I didn’t get on here to argue with you, aint got to prove nothing to you, and ain’t got an ounce of time for it if I did.
        Google it!

      5. Hah! Says the person who’s first post began with “I disagree.”

        Put up or shut up.

      6. “Put up or shut up.”

        Come on. Let’s keep things civil here.

        I think her point stands with maybe a slight alteration. It’s not so much that white actors fail and fail and fail and black actors get one failure and that’s it (although there is truth to that). It’s that black actors rarely even get the chance to fail. What, there’s Sydney Poitier, Denzel Washington, Eddie Murphy, Will Smith and…

        Oh, there are countless others, but in terms of leading men on par with the Tom Cruises of the world Denzel, Eddie and Will have been about it. They’ve weathered some storms, although Denzel remains one of our last movie stars with consistent box office pull. So, Idris Elba leading The Dark Tower is noteworthy just as John Boyega co-leading The Force Awakens was, and that’s why the issue of failure shouldn’t be attributable to race but instead to quality, as The Dark Tower is yet another movie to suffer from trying to hard to set up a cinematic universe. A black leading man had nothing to do with that particular failing. In fact, he’s actually the best part of the movie.

      7. It’s a bottom line business, sure, but Hollywood has a track record of misunderstanding why certain movies fail, often opting to go with the simplest explanation instead of the most complicated ones which sometimes speak to endemic problems in the industry in need of hard work or entirely new people to fix. So, historically if a female-led or minority-led movie fails it’s because those movies just don’t sell.

        For example, we know from the Sony hack that as recently as three years ago Marvel’s President was pointing to Elektra, Catwoman and Supergirl as evidence that female superhero movies just don’t work. Never mind that the true common denominator between those films is not gender but an astonishingly low quality. Then along came Wonder Woman to prove that if you actually made a good version of one of these movies it could be a big hit.

        Similarly, Ghostbusters failed for so many reasons. It’s not a very good movie. It’s yet another franchise reboot. The cast didn’t have great chemistry. The script was poor. They hired a director and screenwriter ill-suited for the material. Its failure should be a wake-up call for Hollywood’s franchise addiction. Instead, it’s mostly remembered for the trolling it received online, and the gender of its cast.

      8. –> ” but Hollywood has a track record of misunderstanding why certain movies fail,”

        I totally agree and I’d love to see them figure out a better way of analyzing the reasons for a movie’s success or failure.

        I just get annoyed when the suggested solution is to simply throw more diversity at it.

        Just like the movies you mentioned starring women were wrongly assumed to have FAILED BECAUSE they starred women (or female super heros), I worry people are wrongly assuming Wonder Woman SUCCEEDED BECAUSE it starred a woman.

        I sincerely doubt there are large blocks of people who decide to watch or refuse to watch based on the gender or race of the lead. I believe the vast majority of movie goers just want to watch really great movies.

      9. “I sincerely doubt there are large blocks of people who decide to watch or refuse to watch based on the gender or race of the lead. I believe the vast majority of movie goers just want to watch really great movies.”

        It usually works best if the two work in tandem, certain audiences responding to a movie because it offers them representation and speaks to their world in ways most movies don’t but general audiences also going along for the ride because, as you said, “it’s just a really great movie.” At the end of the day, it’s that last thing everyone wants to see when they go to the movies.

      10. What Ikeke35 is saying is that people look at ghostbusters ot a similarly diverse movie that failed and assume it was the cast, and not the writing or editing or whatever else made it suck.

      11. The problem is that too many people who rightly see that as bunk also seem to think the solution is to force more diversity into the films.

        My point is that diversity shouldn’t even be a factor. The decisions should be on how to make great films — and then cast the appropriate genders and races that fit the script.

    2. That’s awesome about The Dark Tower. I actually agree with you. It’s not great, but it’s nowhere near as bad as its rep right now. I had fun with it, and I left wanting to see more of Idris and that kid together having their weird supernatural western adventures together. Elba especially slayed the fish-out-water stuff in New York. His reaction to a hot dog was priceless.

      The reason I am a bit more optimistic than you about the diversity thing is largely because the success of Wonder Woman has just been so monumental. Girls Trip has killed. And the ongoing #OscarSoWhite conversation, Confederate controversy, threat of a federal investigation into unfair hiring practices and steady drumbeat trumpeting the need for more diversity is such that surely the industry wouldn’t give up this easily.

      Then again, CBS keeps on putting on lilly white shows aimed at middle America regardless of whatever uncomfortable questions they get asked by journalists, and all of those annual studies breaking down the number of speaking roles for female characters in the top 100 movies show things are getting worse, not better. And this is a trend-based business, and some of these underperformers could convince studio suits that this diversity trend has worn off and isn’t profitable.

      So, let’s hope Black Panther destroys the box office next year.

      1. –> “So, let’s hope Black Panther destroys the box office next year.”

        Yes, but because it’s GOOD, not because it stars a non-white guy. You seem to be drifting away from your premise in the original article. Film makers should focus on putting out great films and cast whatever race or gender makes sense for the film.

      2. Yeah, but it’s a Marvel Studios movie. I sort of thought its quality was just guaranteed. Like, the idea that this movie might not be any good hasn’t even occurred to me because Marvel Studios’ track record is so strong. So, when I champion its possibilities at the box office I am doing so under the assumption that it’s going to be a pretty good movie either way. Really, after Creed, I’ll watch anything Ryan Coogler directs.

    3. you weren’t the only one person who enjoyed ‘The Dark Tower’. I did too, and I’m usually a very annoyingly picky movie viewer. I did give it a chance, specifically because ONE; It’s based on a Stephen King Novel and I love Stephen King, and TWO; IDRIS ELBA. That’s it, that’s all I needed to go watch the damn movie, and you know what? I enjoyed it while I happily ate my pop corn. Also, I loved that most of the bad guys were MAYO, and ALSO, I loved the references to other Stephen King works.

      THE END.

      1. Maybe that’s part of the reason so many critics hated it, maybe? Just wondering. I thought the criticism was far out of proportion to the movie. I’ve seen some really bad King adaptations and this just ain’t one of them.

  3. I would be very angry if a black person or a female person were refused a starring role because of their race or gender. But, I’m equally upset if they’re given a role because of their race or gender.

  4. –> “Hollywood very easily forgets when movies with marginalized casts have been successful, in favor of believing that ALL such movies are failures, when one of them fails.”

    Hollywood wants to make money and they’ll invest where they think that will happen. If diverse casts start making them money and white male casts start losing them money, you can bet we’ll start to see a ton of diversely cast movies and fewer and fewer movies with white male casts.

    The only color movie investors see is green.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: